Wrecked at Scapa
My first time diving Scapa Flow
By Ross McLaren
If you’re reading this then chances are you’re a diver and the name Scapa Flow probably already means something to you. But for those of you who’ve maybe heard the name but not too familiar with what’s down there, let me give you a VERY brief history lesson.
At the end of WW1 during negotiations at Versailles the German High Fleet was sailed to Scapa, one of Britain’s key naval bases, where it was to surrender and be handed over to the British once the peace deal was signed. Originally the 21st of June was set as a date for the deal to be struck, and in theory if it hadn’t been signed then the war would resume. However, unbeknownst to the commander of the German fleet, Admiral Ludwig von Reuter, an extension had been agreed. Thinking talks had broken down and no treaty signed, von Reuter assumed the war had resumed. With his ships already disarmed the only option left to the German sailors was to scuttle their own vessels to stop them from falling into “enemy” hands. 52 ships were sunk that day. Over the years many have been salvaged until just 7 remaining on the seabed in Scapa Flow.
Most divers dream of warm waters, with crystal clear visibility and colourful fish, but for me (and being the history geek I am!) my diving goal has always been Scapa so when the guys at Eastwood Divers invited me along I was like a kid at Christmas!
For me, a dive day isn’t just about the diving itself, it’s also about the journey to the site and the people you’re with. So with the long drive north and ferry crossing to Orkney, this was pretty much my ideal diving adventure. Driving up through the Highlands of Scotland seeing both the epic mountain landscapes and our rugged coastline is worth the journey alone. I’ve never been to Orkney before so as the ferry passed the island of Hoy and the Old man of Hoy I began to get a feel for just how special the place was and by the time we arrived in Stromness I knew this was going to be a trip I’d never forget.
Now, some of you reading this may have experienced the luxuries of liveaboards in Egypt or the southern hemisphere, so let me be completely transparent, there aren’t many of those types of boats here in Scotland… in fact even our most luxurious of dive boats aren’t in the same league. Here in Scotland, we prefer the more… “rustic” feel to our boats and ours is probably as “rustic” as they come. A former fishing trawler, the Jean Elaine, has been converted to her new role and although she is a slightly older lady, she was perfect! Skipper Andy and crewman Danny were absolutely superb, I even got a wee shot of “driving” the boat… didn’t last long. Apparently, like driving, it’s kind of frowned upon to take a selfie and “drive” a boat at the same time!
I am not a technical diver. I’ve got my nitrox and 40m qualification but that’s about as “technical” as I get. I’ve done plenty of +30m dives and wrecks, but I know my limits and where to draw the line (plus with a baby on the way I’ve been well warned) so diving the wrecks at Scapa was at the upper end of my diving ability. I’ve done decompression dives before, but I’ll be honest I was nervous! Hanging on a line mid-water knowing you literally can’t surface until your computer tells you/completed your pre-calculated decompression stops is for me still quite a disconcerting feeling for the first few minutes.
If I wrote about each dive we would be here a while, but my first dive in Scapa will stay with me forever – the cruiser SMS Dresden! Honestly neither this description nor the photos will ever do these ships justice! As we descend the line the hulking giant begins to emerge from the gloom. She might not be the biggest of the High Seas Fleet, but she is nonetheless impressive. Lying on her side we fin towards the bow, letting our torch beams illuminate the features of the 104-year-old ship.
The first area of interest we come to is the armoured control tower and with its curved wall and viewing slits, it’s an impressive sight and you can almost imagine the German sailors huddled inside spotting for enemy vessels on the horizon. We head towards the bow and are met with the most unbelievable scene. The deck, over the years, has detached itself from the hull bending down towards the seabed as if someone has come along it with a tin opener leaving the guts of the Dresden open to peer in to. Apparently there’s even a bath somewhere inside, I wasn’t brave enough (or qualified) to confirm that! Eventually we reach the bow of the cruiser, and although it’s not as clear as it might once have been, there’s a distinct shape of a crown at the front of the ship. This was apparently designed to allow mooring lines to be strung from the ship to the harbourside. Honestly, being able to experience first-hand these amazing feats of human engineering is genuinely a real privilege.
You’d think it would be difficult to get lost on these wrecks, well you’d be wrong… or maybe you’re not and it just says more about my navigation skills. In fact, it actually says on one website “SMS Cöln is not a complex wreck to navigate” … hmm… I disagree.
SMS Cöln is possibly the most intact of the Highseas Fleet and we did eventually tick off all the sights… we just took the “scenic route” to them. Much like the Dresden, her armoured control tower is still obvious, but the big draw for me was the potential of glimpsing her 5.9inch guns at the stern. We’d planned to come down the shot, keep the deck on our left shoulder, nosey around the control tower, come up a little and follow the deck on our right until we hit her guns… sounds simple enough ehh? Not for me it would seem! It was on the Cöln I realised just how big these ships really were. As you head to the stern from the shot line the decking falls away to a section that’s been salvaged. What’s left as you approach is a chasm that drops down a few more metres. We dropped down, but instead of swimming across the “chasm” to reach the decking at the other side and the guns I unknowingly led us around to the hull and back towards the bow… well I did keep what I thought was the deck on my right-hand side.
Ironically possibly the best dive of the week actually didn’t belong to the German Highseas Fleet though. Although still German, the F2 escort boat is actually from WW2 and sunk in 1946, after being surrendered to the allies, during a storm. Not only is there the F2 at the site, there’s also the barge YC21 that was sent to salvage her in the 60’s, which funnily enough, also sank during a storm. So, it’s basically a two for one deal at Scapa! Both wrecks sit about 100m apart with a maximum depth of only around 16m so it was by some way the shallowest dive of the trip. The shallow depth also meant there was a lot more natural surface light that made taking photos a wee bit easier.
Starting on the barge you’ll find a couple of AA guns which had already been removed from the F2 and in around the bow much of the hull has fallen away to reveal the “ribs” of her which is a beautiful sight to see. Once we’d swum around YC21 we headed for the German vessel which someone has so kindly tied a rope to from the bow of the barge. After a wee swim across the seabed you’re met with the looming hull of the F2.
Now being an escort ship, like a British corvette, she is much smaller than the main Scapa dives, but again because of the ambient light and her good condition she is a beautiful wreck. She lies on her port side and finning down to the bow you get great look at her hull and the life on it. As you come round to her main deck the 4.1inch gun is still attached and is still pretty much intact. Heading towards the stern her bridge has since fallen from the main wreck and is scattered around the seafloor but it’s not far from the ship and again because of the natural light is great to explore.
Obviously when you head to Scapa you’re going primarily for the wrecks. However, one thing that surprised me most was the life around these hunks of steel. I’ve been on plenty of wrecks before in the Clyde and off the west coast of Scotland, but for some reason I was really taken aback by the number of shoals of fish and covering of life on these magnificent feats of human engineering. It really is impressive to see the way mother nature reclaims the structures. It’s also quite poignant; these great ships were designed for death and destruction on a huge scale but are now providing a home and habitat for new life to flourish and grow.
I spent 3 days diving the wrecks of Scapa Flow and I’ve barely scratched the surface of these magnificent ships. I said at the start that this was always my goal to dive here, and although I’ve now “achieved” it, I haven’t really! There is still so much left to explore, and my short adventure was just a taster. With a wee one on the way I’m not too sure when I’ll get a chance to return but I know I will one day!
Ross McLaren is a secondary school chemistry teacher in the West of Scotland. He describes himself as “Not a professional or even a technical diver, I’m just a normal guy with a Monday to Friday, 9 to 5(ish) career, that loves to go diving here in the UK (really Scotland!) and try to show the amazing stuff that so many people don’t realise we have right here in our own country”. He is a regular contributor to the online platform, BBC the Social.